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Collaborative Tool Builds Virtual Gathering Places

May 1999
By Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

Metaphorically speaking, cyberneighborhoods are right around the corner and growing fast.

The network urban landscape is under construction. And while T-1 lines and Ethernet may deliver the power, they are also becoming the lines of communication between cyberbuildings that host fully equipped accommodations for meetings, classes and seminars.

In the virtual world, distances traveled to conferences are counted in inches rolled on a mouse pad rather than by frequent flyer miles. These cybercities represent nodes on networks, expanding traditional thinking about the roles they play in an organization. The construction crew on this project is the information technology software developers who deliver completely constructed buildings to the desktop. Industry and government moguls purchase these virtual environments to foster and facilitate collaboration in their communities. However, while leaders recognize the value in these virtual cities, many of them confront a cultural resistance to conducting cooperative efforts in a cybersetting.

GTE Government Systems Corporation, Arlington, Virginia, addresses this reluctance to entering the electronic collaborative environment with an easy-to-use, familiar environment. The company’s collaborative software tool, called InfoWorkSpace, uses as its cyberbackdrop a neighborhood of office buildings much like the ones workers report to each day. Elaborating on this basic metaphor, the firm divides an individual building’s space into separate floors, each designated for a specific work group. Then, taking this analogy one step further, each floor features a collection of variously sized meeting rooms that include the standard tools for the cooperative information exchange. The result is a businesslike neighborhood that workers at different technology comfort levels can comprehend, easily access and quickly incorporate into their everyday job responsibilities.

From a business standpoint, the benefits include empowering a workforce to immediately and effortlessly share ideas, work on solutions and receive training. In addition, users agree they realize savings in both time and money as coworkers in geographically dispersed areas collaborate from their desktops rather than travel to locations hundreds of miles away. However, because this capability is relatively new, sufficient metric information on actual economic benefits is not yet available.

Client companies purchase a designated amount of software licenses. An unlimited number of individuals can have the tool at their desktops, but the number of licenses determines how many people can be in the collaborative environment at the same time.

Workers access their organization’s InfoWorkSpace environment through a commercial World Wide Web browser. They can then join coworkers for meetings or other collaborative work in a specified room. A variety of room sizes is available. Briefing rooms accommodate up to 10 individuals, while seminar facilities are designed for up to 50 participants.

Each room contains all the information, tools, resources and applications the group needs for cooperative work, including an audio-over-Internet protocol capability that allows verbal communications. Desktop video conferencing software is also integrated into the suite.

An interactive bulletin board allows participants to post messages that all other parties can view, and the text chat capability, similar to Internet chat rooms, enables real-time communications among participants, either typed in broadcast or private mode.

A whiteboard capability allows geographically dispersed participants to annotate an on-line display simultaneously, and all participants can instantly view work contributed by each party. Whiteboard data can be saved separately in multiple image file formats including GIF, TIFF and NITF. A file cabinet is available in each room for storage of documents, spreadsheets, presentations and uniform resource locators, or URLs.

For classroom or presentation forums, InfoWorkSpace offers an auditorium with seating for up to 500 participants. Powered by PlaceWare, its conference center capabilities include interactive presentations using Powerpoint, video files or web products. Integrated collaborative tools, similar to those available in the smaller settings, allow students to participate in a controlled manner.

Tools are also available for preparing, recording and displaying presentations. To enable the teacher or speaker to maintain contact with presentation participants, audience management tools include a means to ask, answer, store and assign questions; recognize audience members; check the status of session participants; assign assistants to help audience members; and conduct sidebar discussions with attendees. Each audience member is assigned a specific seat and can hold private conversations with people in the same row, but cannot talk indiscriminately to all members of the audience.

Because organizations may have a host of experts that are not included in a specific session, users can employ the search capability within InfoWorkSpace to locate, contact and invite individuals into the virtual environment. The contact database is a fully browser-accessible and searchable collection of collaboration participants. This capability also allows users to navigate the virtual space through product and general keyword searches.

To invite a specific expert to an ongoing session, participants can review a list of others who are presently using the virtual environment and then page them from the desktop. If the desired specialist is not currently on-line, an off-line calling and paging capability allows participants to send a telephone voice message or traditional beeper page.

Before GTE’s first release of the software last May, the U.S. Atlantic Command, Norfolk, Virginia, acted as an operational testbed for how the technology worked and how users would employ it, Jay E. McConville explains. He is the manager of sales and marketing, command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, GTE Government Systems. Several valuable lessons were learned as a result of the year-long military pilot program, and the tool was refined to better meet the requirements of potential users, he adds.

After analyzing the command’s uses for the software tool, the company determined that collaborative efforts generally took place in three forums: small groups of several people, large groups for briefings or conferences, and real-time desktop collaborative conferences, including video and application sharing. “For these three groups, we had to provide a real desktop solution that could do all three, and everything had to be a jump and a click away,” McConville states.

“We were able to discover which features were most important to customers and then work on them. We found that video was not very important to the government customer,” McConville says. Because of its intrusive nature, he predicts that it will take two to three years for video to play a bigger role in individual, small or medium group settings; however, video is a key component in conferencing with larger groups or classroom settings. During the pilot program, users employed the video capability for a short time to verify the identity of participants, and then they turned it off.

The software’s developers also concluded that, because the level and type of computer knowledge varied among users, it was critical to make the tool’s operations intuitive to ensure widespread participation by the entire group. As a result, many InfoWorkSpace features include point and click accessibility. This was also one reason the company decided to use the building/city metaphor for the product, McConville says.

One feature the Atlantic Command particularly liked about the product was what McConville calls its persistence. “If you put stuff in a real, physical room, it stays there. We wanted to carry this on to the virtual collaborative environment,” he explains. The virtual file cabinet provides this service for printed documents and presentations in the current version of the software. Improvements in voice recognition technology could extend this capability in future releases to audio discussions by providing and saving written transcripts of work sessions.

Future enhancements could also equip users in different communities with the ability to communicate with each other or to access other communities’ expert profile database or designated documents. “We want to have the option of transparent servers so that the user doesn’t know what server is being used but doesn’t need to know and doesn’t care,” McConville explains.

The U.S. Air Force Command and Control, Training and Innovation Center (C2TIC), Hurlburt Field, Florida, is one of several dozen current client organizations. The group, which conducts training, testing and exercises for the Air Force and the Defense Department, has been using InfoWorkSpace since last October.

One finding that resulted from last year’s Expeditionary Force Experiment, an exercise the center coordinated, was the need for a collaborative tool. “We believe it is the key to how we’re going to fight in the future,” Col. Marc H. Lindsley, USAF, commander, C2TIC, says. The group evaluated 42 collaborative tools, narrowed the field down to four, and then chose GTE’s InfoWorkSpace.

The first operational use for the software was its export to Europe for operations in Kosovo. The air operations center is using InfoWorkSpace for point-to-point coordination and collaboration with headquarters in Germany. The tool supports both classified and unclassified communications using the secret information profile router network, or SIPRNET, Col. Lindsley explains.

“We all agree that we’re going to move to this type of collaboration. We’re not going to send 3,000 people to an operation like we did in Desert Storm for an air operations center,” he offers.

On a local level, approximately 800 C2TIC employees are using the tool in its centers throughout the United States. The command purchased 200 licenses.

“I use it for management meetings. If I’m not using it, how can I ask my people to use it? We have some things to learn such as body language and protocol about who talks first, for example. But it is very easy to use. My people have talked others through it over the telephone,” the colonel explains.

Incorporation of the product into the workplace has not gone without a hitch, despite quality installation and training from GTE.

“I am surprised at how hard it is to take new technology and integrate it into activities,” Col. Lindsley offers. “When the time comes to field and use new technology, everyone has something to say. Acquisition people say there’s not enough money. Systems people don’t want it on their machines. Security people have security concerns. We have to change this mindset. We are still functionally organized, but now we have to go to processes instead of functions. We have to cross-organize and work through organizational boundaries. This is another cultural change. People need to organize by who is needed from each group, and they need to feel part of the group that they are working with. They need access to the people they are working with even if those people are not part of their normal group. Collaborative tools create a multiplace team.”

McConville agrees saying that there are organizational and cultural factors that prevent collaboration. He cites the intelligence community as one group that has a stovepipe way of thinking. Each intelligence agency currently has a different way of working, and they conduct operations separately.

Although McConville perceives some reluctance, several intelligence organizations have already set up InfoWorkSpace in their shops. A list of several dozen current users, available from the system icon map, includes the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, Air Intelligence Agency, and the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command. Other clients include the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, the Energy Department and the Joint Command and Control Warfare Center.

Since InfoWorkSpace is a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) product, several other issues must be addressed.

“While there is a great desire to use COTS, it’s a different way of doing business for government. Collaboration in the government using COTS was started by The MITRE Corporation with their collaborative virtual workspace,” McConville says. GTE credits MITRE with setting the groundwork for its current product.

Selling commercial products to the government poses a special challenge to companies, Col. Lindsley says. “Because it’s a COTS product, now GTE, and any other company that provides COTS products to the military has to evolve their product to show that they can meet our needs,” he offers. Products that change, or have the ability to change, can fulfill the developing requirements of the military. “We [the military] can no longer afford to build specific products to meet specific needs, but, at the same time, COTS manufacturers have to work with specific commands so that the COTS product meets their needs and will evolve as the needs change,” he adds.

McConville predicts this type of application for networks is in its infancy. “We see more and more activity on the Internet protocol network, and we want to provide the tools to increase this use. Growth of the network is important, but what also has to grow are the tools that use it,” he says.